Nightmare in Sleepy Hollow

by Daniel O’Sullivan

There is a particularly vivid nightmare that has been keeping Cats fans awake all season.  The dream takes place in the summer months when the desperation for new football stories becomes so all-encompassing that Dane Swan’s latest tattoo disaster gets saturation coverage. After much conjecture and innuendo surrounding his future, Geelong’s favourite son, Gary Ablett, has decided to schedule an hour-long special on a 24-hour sports channel to officially announce to the world where he will play out the remainder of his glittering career. Firstly, he strings along the vast audience by engaging in some pointless chatter with a smug sports anchor. After which, the prodigal son looks down the barrel and announces to the world, without even a flicker of emotion, that he will be leaving his hometown to be ply his trade in a warmer, more glamorous locale. This is the point in the dream when Geelong fans realise they are sitting in maths class with nothing on but a tattered pair of Target underpants.

But what makes for a Geelong fan’s worst nightmare, is a Cleveland Cavalier fan’s terrifying reality.

If you substitute a freakishly gifted bald midget in horizontal stripes for a freakishly gifted basketballer named Lebron James then trade Gold Coast for Miami and you have the most controversial player defection of all time. A brutal ESPN-televised event named ‘The Decision’ that broke a million hearts last month.

Conceived with all the ‘main event’ mentality synonymous with American sports, ‘The Decision’ turned a controversial sports transfer into a brash ratings winner and perhaps the first instance of television-related genocide since ‘The Nanny’ first aired on Channel 10.

The tortured fan base of Cleveland has not won a title in any sport since the Browns’ won an NFL Championship in 1964. In Lebron, they had a home-grown messiah seemingly destined to drag the city to glory atop his broad shoulders that have been emblazoned with the words ‘Chosen 1’ in ink since he was 19. But after seven campaigns, the last of which faltered badly in the playoffs, there he was, dressed in a muted checked shirt, leaving an entire city to twist naked in the wind via a television special that caused the instant devalue of 10 million No.23 Cavs jerseys.

The AFL’s own high profile transfer charade has seen Ablett cop criticsm for all the ‘will he-won’t he’ conjecture. There has been plenty of talk about the saga threatening to overshadow the Cats tilt at a third flag in four years. But in light of what happened to the Cavaliers, those down in Sleepy Hollow may count themselves lucky they at least got to drink themselves unconscious in the honour of a couple of flags. They should also be grateful to have avoided such a sharp knife in the back from one of their own on national TV.

For now, at least.

And AFL players and coaches with misgivings about the amount of media scrutiny have plenty to fear if our sports coverage continues down the inevitable path forged by our American cousins.

Lebron’s ‘Decision’ special was preceded by weeks of 24-hour saturation coverage in what was the biggest free agent summer in basketball history. Fiery debates raged across sterile made-for-TV desks as ESPN wheeled in ex-players, ex-coaches, analysts, experts, and seemingly anyone with a passing interest in baggy shorts and tattoo sleeves. But with factual information only being drip-fed to media outlets, no one actually knew anything. It was like an argument between two toddlers about the merits of the mining tax.

And with so much time to fill in the 24-hour news cycle, it became a matter of ESPN experts desperately trying to keep their jobs by breaking any half-baked rumour as a genuine news story.  It was like a million Hutchy’s arguing with themselves about the length of a piece of string. Or it was just like Footy Classified.

The SEN era may be the precursor to this kind of reportage in Australia, so AFL players better be on excellent terms with their media trainer and be highly skilled at pretending to talk on mobile phones because it will only take a major scandal such as the Carey/Stevens saga to see how close we are to the American blueprint. Or maybe just the televised defection of a favourite son? You can practically hear the light go on above Ricky Nixon’s head. Watch this space.

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